Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Grasping the Invisible: Semantic Processing of Abstract Words

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Grasping the Invisible: Semantic Processing of Abstract Words

Article excerpt

Published online: 17 May 2013

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract The problem of how abstract word meanings are represented has been a challenging one. In the present study, we extended the semantic richness approach (e.g., Yap, Tan, Pexman, & Hargreaves in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 18:742-750, 2011) to abstract words, examining the effects of six semantic richness variables on lexical-semantic processing for 207 abstract nouns. The candidate richness dimensions were context availability (CA), sensory experience rating (SER), valence, arousal, semantic neighborhood (SN), and number of associates (NoA). The behavioral tasks were lexical decision (LDT) and semantic categorization (SCT). Our results showed that the semantic richness variables were significantly related to both LDT and SCT latencies, even after lexical and orthographic factors were controlled. The patterns of richness effects varied across tasks, with CA effects in the LDT, and SER and valence effects in the SCT. These results provide new insight into how abstract meanings may be grounded, and are consistent with a dynamic, multidimensional framework for semantic processing.

Keywords Word meaning . Visual word recognition . Semantic memory

In recent years, much progress has been made in under- standing how word meaning is retrieved. One fruitful ap- proach has been to examine the effects of semantic richness in lexical and semantic processing (for a review, see Pexman, 2012). That is, a number of theories now attempt to describe semantic representation. These models make different claims about the basic units or dimensions of semantic information; for instance, meaning can be derived from lexical co-occurrence information (how words are used in language; e.g., Burgess & Lund, 2000), semantic features (attributes derived from experience with concepts; e.g., McRae, Cree, Seidenberg, & McNorgan, 2005), or sensori- motor experience (grounded in perceptual representations; e.g., Barsalou, 1999). Support for each of these frameworks has been provided by studies showing that each of these dimensions is related to lexical-semantic processing. That is, lexical-semantic processing is facilitated for words with more associates (number-of-associates effects; Duñabeitia, Avilés, & Carreiras, 2008) or that occur in contexts similar to those of many other words (semantic neighborhood ef- fects; Buchanan, Westbury, & Burgess, 2001), or that gen- erate many semantic features (number-of-features effects; Grondin, Lupker, & McRae, 2009; Pexman, Lupker, & Hino, 2002), or that refer to concepts that are easily imageable (imageability effects; Balota, Cortese, Sergent- Marshall, Spieler, & Yap, 2004) or that the human body can easily interact with (body-object interaction effects; Siakaluk, Pexman, Aguilera, Owen, & Sears, 2008). These semantic richness effects are consistent with the principle that when it comes to semantic activation in lexical pro- cessing, "more is better" (Balota, Ferraro, & Connor, 1991, p. 214).

Early research on semantic richness tended to focus on the effects of each richness dimension in isolation. More recently, advances have been made in studies with large word sets that afford the opportunity to simultaneously examine the effects of several richness variables on lexical-semantic processing. These studies have shown that several richness dimensions have unique relationships with lexical-semantic processing, and that the relative proportions of variance accounted for by particular dimensions vary across tasks (Pexman, Hargreaves, Siakaluk, Bodner, & Pope, 2008; Yap, Pexman, Wellsby, Hargreaves, & Huff, 2012; Yap, Tan, Pexman, & Hargreaves, 2011). These results suggest that semantic repre- sentation may be multidimensional, and that lexical-semantic processing is dynamic, with the task demands influencing the meanings accessed. Much of this research, however, has fo- cused on the meanings of concrete words-that is, words with tangible referents (e. …

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